I will clarify for Deputy Nash that he has four minutes to speak or two minutes if he is sharing time, and one minute each afterwards for final reply if he is sharing. The first Topical Issue matter is in the name of Deputy McAuliffe.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Autism Support Services
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, said that there was an urgent need to provide the country with a functioning government. In outlining the many reasons why that was needed, he spoke very passionately about how parents of children with a disability must fight to secure a place each September for their children in primary and secondary school. Many parents of children with special needs are facing considerable difficulties in securing these places for their children and often, when they do get on the list, they have been waiting for many years.
I recently met the ASD Education for Finglas group and heard the harrowing stories of parents who were left in the dark, who had to scramble around contacting different schools and who often resorted to begging school principals. In my constituency of Dublin North-West, there is a severe lack of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places both at primary and secondary school. At primary level there was one specialised class in the entire Dublin 11 area, which includes 19 primary schools, yet there are only three ASD units in that area. At second level the situation is even worse. There are seven second level schools in the area and only one has an ASD unit. Many parents are forced to send their children to education providers outside the area, which deprives children of growing up in the community where they have so many other resources. As I know the Minister of State believes, we need to incentivise more schools to provide ASD units and I understand that often, particularly in a DEIS area, this can make schools fearful about the resources that they have. Will the Department produce a five-year forecast of the current and future needs of special needs education places in the catchment area for each school and communicate that to the schools?
Under section 37A of the Education Act 1988, the Minister of State can direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. I appreciate that we have to exhaust that process first. The legislation has been used to good effect in the recent past in south Dublin and I praise the Minister of State and the Department for that work. Many people in my constituency are asking whether, if it was appropriate to take that action on the south side of the city, similar action can be now taken on the north side. I urge the Minister of State to assist these parents in any way possible.
I take this opportunity, first, to congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on her appointment.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding provision for children with special needs including autism. Enabling children with special educational needs, including autism, to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a real priority for the Government and for me as Minister of State with responsibility for special education. Currently we know that almost 20% of the total education budget, €1.9 billion, is invested in supporting children with special needs. As a result, the number of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. Provision in our 124 special schools has increased from 6,848 placements in 2011 to 7,872 this year. Nationally, 167 new special classes opened in the 2019-20 school year, which means that there are 1,618 special classes in place compared to 548 in 2011.
Where new special education places are opened, there is a menu of supports provided to schools by the Department, including additional teachers, special needs assistants and professional development. Notwithstanding the extent of this investment, there are some parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to a shortage of school places for children with special educational needs. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has overall responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in an area can between them cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements. Normally, special class and special school places are established with the full co-operation of the schools in areas where they are required.
However, as the Deputy has quite correctly pointed out, there are some parts of the country where the NCSE has faced challenges in getting schools and their patrons to provide new special class or indeed special school places. This can cause much anguish for parents and families involved. As the Minister of State responsible, as the Deputy has pointed out, I have power under section 37A of the Education Act to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. The legislation contains a procedure through which the capacity of schools in an area can be tested and through which ultimately, a ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education provision available. While I am prepared to use the legislation when necessary to ensure that children can access a suitable education, my preference is for schools to engage with this challenge on a voluntary basis because this is the right thing to do for the children in their community.
The Deputy may be aware that the legislation was used for the very first time in 2019 in the Dublin 15 area. Significant progress has been made in that area on foot of action taken under section 37A. A new special school was established there and six schools also agreed to open special classes, thereby meeting the need for additional places in the area. The experience of Dublin 15 shows that real and practical challenges can be addressed by working together to provide additional special class and special school places.
The Deputy may also be aware that my Department and the NCSE is also continuing its engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others across south Dublin to bring the required additional special class and special school placements on stream and this work is ongoing.
As for Dublin North-West, the NCSE has advised that there are currently nine primary and three post-primary ASD classes established in the area. St. Paul’s special school in Beaumont also caters for students with ASD and in addition, the NCSE has established three new primary ASD classes, as well as two new post-primary ASD classes for the coming school year.
I thank the Minister of State. At the heart of her reply, as well as the experience of any parents who sit before us at a clinic explaining their real urgency and frustration, is the issue of transparency. Many of those parents do not feel part of the process but feel they are subject to the process. Many do not believe there is transparency about how a school or ASD unit is established, or how a school avails of that process. We also really need to take into account the needs of the schools. Many of the schools I am talking about are in a DEIS area and have significant challenges, often with low enrolment numbers, with parents who may have an addiction issue, as well as members of minority communities. We have to do all we can to support those schools to opt in and to provide an ASD unit. I urge the Minister of State and her officials to do two things. The first is to help us exhaust the process of all reasonable efforts within the legislation and within her Department for the Dublin 11 area. If the Minister of State is saying at this point that she does not believe there is a need, then that is a separate argument that we can have.
If there is a need, we must exhaust all reasonable efforts and, hopefully, provide the places during that period. If we cannot provide them, I will come back to the Minister of State to urge her to direct the schools in the area to provide those ASD places.
I thank the Deputy. I reassure him that the legislative process that is under way is fully transparent. It is published on the departmental website where the Deputy can look at it at any stage. I do not disagree with him. I am aware that one particular child in Dublin North-West is looking for a place and that the NCSE is engaging regularly with the child's parents. While it is not ideal, there is an interim measure of a home tuition scheme. It involves approximately 20 hours per week for a child over the age of three and ten hours per week for a child under the age of three, but that is only an interim measure. As the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I am very mindful of a child not having a school place, which is a fundamental right for every child in this country. There has to be equal opportunity, regardless of whether a child has special needs, and I am determined to set out the way I will achieve that.
The Deputy mentioned forecasting. We are working on a forecasting model in the Department, which I hope will tackle this perennial problem. It did not just happen this year; it happened in other years also. Extenuating circumstances can arise during the year where a child may suddenly need a place. A new professional report can suggest a change in the type of placement required. Sometimes the parents decide that the child should remain in early years education or parents may opt for a mainstream class instead of a special class or special school. What pops up, therefore, is an additional place that a child needs. It is not as straightforward as some would like to believe. I would have been of the same view until I came into this Department but I am determined to assist in any way I can.
This is such a serious issue for expectant parents that it requires us to choose the terms we use very carefully, but the only word that comes to mind to describe the position is "bonkers". It is straight up bonkers that an expectant father can go for a pint in a dry pub with a €9 meal and will soon be able to go for a pint without a meal in a wet pub, but he cannot accompany his partner in the delivery room for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of bringing a new baby into the world. It is straight up bonkers that the Government has decided it is more important for an expectant father to be able to wet his baby's head than to see his baby's head at the time of birth. The child is not born in an instant. A child comes into the world over a series of hours and, in that series of hours, the mother experiences incredible labour pains for which she needs comfort and support.
I have heard from women who have received terrible news while attending maternity appointments. One can imagine how isolating and upsetting it is not to have the comfort and support of one's partner at such times. I spoke to many parents over the past few weeks and bravo to them because they have certainly brought this issue front and centre.
During a delivery a baby is born and so too a mam and a dad. The expectant father is every bit as much a parent to the child as the delivering mother. He must, therefore, be able to attend the birth of his child following which the man, dad and baby become a family. By attending, I do not mean just being present. I mean in the sense of attending to his partner and their new baby.
The parents I have spoken to know that in prioritising access to pubs over access to the delivery room, the Government is presiding over a farce. I do not believe we should be waiting for an expectant parent to challenge us on the basis of equality.
New mothers and their partners are understandably very angry about the ongoing visiting restrictions in maternity hospitals. Some maternity hospitals in Dublin have eased restrictions, yet elsewhere the opposite is the case. Women are alone until they are in active labour. I spoke to a woman this morning who endured 23 hours of labour without support from a loved one.
I know that public health is a priority, as it should be, but it is difficult for people to understand why someone is allowed to attend a wedding with 49 other people but, in some instances, people cannot attend a prenatal scan with their partner or be with their partner for most of the labour and after the birth of their baby.
Why is there a disparity in the restrictions among hospitals? There seems to be a geographic lottery that is confusing and frustrating for people. The Covid-19 restrictions in maternity hospitals were introduced six months ago. Since then, many other restrictions in general society have been eased, so why not these? They clearly need to be revised as a matter of urgency. Inconsistent practices in maternity hospitals add to the general confusion among the public. We need coherent guidelines that are supported by clear rationale and shared evidence.
To give the Minister of State some idea of the kinds of cases that have caused this level of confusion and outrage, I spoke to a woman yesterday who had an emergency caesarean section. She went through the entire labour, birth and five days in hospital alone, and has had no follow-up care. Her husband met their baby when she was discharged. It so happens that he had surgery before this and still has follow-up care, including calls during lockdown and an in-person check in May. When he was in hospital his wife was called to bring him in snacks and pyjamas.
Being alone during labour is hard enough when everything goes well but it is even more awful when there are complications. The stories I am hearing about people receiving bad news and having to call their partner who is sitting outside in the car are heartbreaking. No one should have to be alone at this time, unless it is absolutely necessary.
We cannot wait. Will the Minister of State please take action on this issue immediately? We are seeing restrictions across society being revised and revisited, with strong lobby groups involved, but these women do not have that. Will the Minister of State revise the current restrictions in maternity wards immediately?
I thank Deputies Cronin and Cairns for raising what I agree is a very important issue. I am a mother of three and I fully understand that the current position in maternity hospitals is a serious concern, which I acknowledge is presenting difficulties for expectant mothers and fathers.
It is regrettable that in order to protect women, babies, staff and our maternity service as a whole, it has been necessary to reduce footfall in maternity hospitals, as both Deputies said. This has been achieved in part through the introduction of visitor restrictions which, unfortunately, have included limitations on access of partners to maternity wards, theatres and appointments. However, the fact that there have been no Covid-19 maternal deaths in this country and that we have had a low incidence of the disease in pregnant women suggests the current approach is working, even if it is very difficult. It is worth remembering also that some of the most vulnerable members of society are cared for in our maternity hospitals, including fragile infants at the very extremes of prematurity. We must do all we can to protect these babies.
Like most healthcare services, maternity hospitals rely on highly specialised personnel to deliver care to women and infants. Should an outbreak of Covid-19 occur in a maternity hospital, it will be devastating for the service in question and would severely impact its ability to provide safe, quality care to mothers and their babies.
To date, our maternity hospitals have performed very well and they have continued to keep women, babies and staff safe while delivering quality care in very challenging circumstances. However, we cannot become complacent. The virus is still transmitting in the community and we must be on high alert. Everybody present will be aware that 307 cases of the virus were reported yesterday.
As services resume, for example, in gynaecology, the number of people in hospitals will rise, thereby increasing the vulnerability of our hospitals to an outbreak. As I said, an outbreak of Covid-19 among staff or patients would have a severe negative impact and reduce our ability to provide maternity services.
All of our maternity services are challenged by the pandemic but those challenges vary considerably between units. There are also significant variations in caseloads, complexity and infrastructure across the system. For this reason, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, we need local flexibility that provides for different circumstances in different maternity wards. Decisions on any restrictions are, therefore, made, implemented and reviewed at hospital level.
I assure the House that the decisions to restrict visitors in maternity hospitals has not been taken lightly.
Front-line staff and hospital management are acutely aware of the very important support provided by partners at the time of birth and, indeed, during clinic visits. I have been assured that maternity hospitals wish to facilitate this support as far as possible and in that context visitor restrictions have been minimised as much as possible and are reviewed frequently.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. I still believe a solution must be found. There is no shortage of personal protective equipment, PPE. At the start of this pandemic, we are all very anxious and there was a shortage of PPE. Naturally, it had to be kept for our healthcare workers but there is no shortage now so a solution can be found. Labour can go on for 24 hours, or more in some awful cases. The birthing partner — it might not be the father but could be the mother or best friend — should be able to go in for half an hour and leave, or stay in for an hour at the birth. With the PPE, a solution can be found.
The World Health Organization has said no woman should be labouring on her own. A hospital is a controlled environment. We really have to sort this out and find a solution. The Minister of State is a mother, as am I, and will therefore realise that a woman is never more vulnerable than when lying on a birthing bed in her nightie. She wants support. Deputy Cullinane is writing to the hospitals today to ask them to re-examine this matter. We have to find a solution.
I completely understand what the Minister of State is saying about the necessity of reducing the footfall but, respectfully, that is not what we are asking about. We understand that and so do all the mothers who have been in touch with us. Trust me, that is really not the point. If, as the Minister of State says, there are different circumstances in different hospitals, people need to accept and understand why. Across society, we have seen revisions in so many sectors and an easing of restrictions. Has the maternity policy been revised? We need the reasons for what is happening to be transparent. So much has been re-opened in every other part of society, yet women are still alone when giving birth. If what the Minister of State describes is necessary, we need to know why. Will there be a review of the maternity wards to determine whether the restrictions can be eased? Can it be carried out immediately before any more women have to go through this?
We cannot forget that the virus is still with us. As I said, there were 307 cases yesterday. We must remain vigilant. Failing to do so will increase the exposure of our hospitals to an outbreak and, ultimately, increase the risk to service users and staff alike. Should an outbreak occur in one of our maternity hospitals, it would negatively impact our ability to provide safe, quality care to mothers and babies. It is important that we do everything in our power to protect mothers, babies and staff. Our maternity hospitals have been successful so far in doing so and the fact that there has been no Covid-related maternal death in this country and that we have a low Covid incidence among pregnant women are a testament to this.
I accept the Deputies' statements that there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach and I understand that no two pregnancies are the same but the visitor restrictions have helped to protect the maternity service. I fully acknowledge the wonderful support partners provide during labour. Front-line staff are aware of that and are therefore ensuring restrictions are minimised as far as possible. I assure both Deputies that the restrictions are reviewed frequently and will be lifted as soon as hospitals believe it is safe to do so. I will raise the Deputies' concerns with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and also raise the fact that they have sought a review of the maternity ward restrictions.
Before I came here to answer the question, I looked at the list of 19 maternity hospitals. In University Hospital Galway, partners are permitted to be with mothers in the labour ward or in theatre if there is a caesarean section. In Mayo University Hospital, partners are permitted to attend with mothers in labour. It varies. In University Hospital Waterford, the birthing partner can attend as soon as the mother is in established labour. Deputy Cronin said labour can take over 23 hours so I can understand where she is coming from. I will relay the Deputies' concerns to the Minister. The restrictions on visits are put in place purely to protect the mother and the baby.
Workers who are members of Unite the Union and SIPTU have been on strike action at Premier Periclase in Drogheda for almost a month now. This dispute has already gone on for longer than is necessary. I lay the blame for the fact that no settlement has been reached firmly at the door of an intransigent management and an operation that appears to be hell-bent on busting trade union activity and presence at the plant.
The context is that workers initially received a democratic mandate for strike action at the plant in July following a sudden decision, taken outside the agreed framework, to shut down sections of the plant temporarily. Trade unions then agreed to defer action to allow for a resolution of the issues at play under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Respect for our industrial relations institutions should be a cornerstone of workplace democracy but management instead gave the two fingers to our institutions and the workers and failed to engage meaningfully in any real negotiations. No worker ever wants to be on strike but the workers at Premier Periclase simply have no choice. They have to defend their hard-won rights and I stand with them.
This dispute became entrenched with a letter issued by local management to individual workers on 21 August. This letter is an insult to those workers who have given loyal service to the plant over many decades. It was threatening in the extreme and stated management would not negotiate with workers on strike action and would not deal with the workers' established unions of choice. Management plans to eviscerate workers' terms and conditions unilaterally. The high-handed and arrogant missive was designed to tear up a collective agreement that has been in place since 1998 and that has served the company well.
This week, the Government and my party rightly slammed the British Government for reneging on a solemn deal made with the European Union, including Ireland. An agreement freely made is an agreement. The Minister of State's reply will, of course, inevitably tell me these issues need to be resolved through the industrial relations institutions of the State in the context of the WRC and by having both sides of industry come together in that spirit. Would the Minister of State call on the company, in the spirit of respecting agreements that are made, to honour the one it made with its workers in 1998 and show them the respect that they deserve and to which their loyalty entitles them?
The dispute in Premier Periclase is not about extra money. The workers are not looking for extra money. The company's proposal is to lay off workers and put them on reduced hours while transferring work to non-union labour and retaining contractors on site. When the proposals were first put to the workers, management continuously refused point blank to engage with them. The workers had no option, therefore, but to serve notice of strike action. The workers then suspended the notice of strike action to allow for talks to take place at the WRC. Management once again refused to engage in any meaningful way in talks at the WRC and hence the talks collapsed. Workers then had no option but to reissue a notice of strike action. That strike commenced on Monday, 17 August. Four days into the strike action, the company issued a letter, by taxi, to the homes of the workers. With regard to the long-standing collective agreement that had been in place, the company said it would no longer operate as a closed shop, that employees would no longer have their union dues deducted through payroll by the company, that the collective agreement with SIPTU and Unite the Union would no longer form part of workers' terms and conditions of employment and that the collective agreement is no longer valid. Management took a decision unilaterally to render the long-standing collective agreement null and void. That should not happen in this State because workers' rights have been long and hard fought for in this State.
Talks resumed last week at the WRC. Once again, the intransigence of management at Premier Periclase was such that its representatives refused to sit around the table and engage with the unions. As a result, there is still a stand-off, the result being the nullification of the long-standing collective agreement and an attempt at union-busting. Will the Minister of State engage with management to encourage it to take part in the industrial relations process?
I thank both Deputies Nash and Munster for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to respond on behalf of my Department and its Minister, Deputy Humphreys.
I understand the dispute relates to issues, including a collective agreement, among others that have developed over the past couple of months. I emphasise that Ireland's system of industrial relations is essentially voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial disputes between employers and workers rests, in the first instance, with the employer, the workers and the representatives.
I understand that in this case some level of engagement with the State-sponsored industrial relation mechanisms, that is, the WRC, has taken place as outlined by both of the previous Deputies and from our own information. I reiterate that the WRC is available to any interested parties that require it and urge all sides to involve themselves in that. As part of its functions, the WRC provides information relating to employment entitlements, obligations, equality and industrial relations matters. Any discussions entered into voluntarily by the workers and employers with one of the State's industrial bodies, the WRC or the Labour Court are confidential to the parties and I, as Minister of State, have no role in or knowledge of these discussions.
It has been a consistent policy of successive Governments to promote collective bargaining through the laws of this country and through the development of an institutional framework supportive of a voluntary system of industrial relations premised on freedom of contract and freedom of association. An extensive range of statutory provisions have been designed to back up the voluntary bargaining process. Freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively are also guaranteed in a number of international instruments, which the State has ratified and is, therefore, bound to uphold under international law.
Since 1946, the Labour Court has provided an industrial relations service whereby disputes in which parties have been unable to resolve issues, themselves or with the assistance of the WRC, can be temporarily referred to the Labour Court for an opinion in the form of a recommendation of the court, which is not binding on the parties. The vast majority of industrial relations recommendations are accepted voluntarily by the parties.
The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, which came into effect on 1 August 2015, provides a clear and balanced mechanism by which the fairness of the employment conditions of workers in their totality can be assessed in employments where collective bargaining cannot take place, and brings clarity or certainty for employers in terms of managing their workplaces in this respect. It also provides strong protection for workers who invoke the provisions of the industrial relations Acts, 2001 and 2004, or who have acted as a witness or a comparator for the purposes of those Acts. It ensures that where an employer is engaged in collective bargaining with an internal accepted body as opposed to a trade union then that body must satisfy the Labour Court as to its independence of the employer.
Legislation ensures the retention of Ireland's voluntary system of industrial relations. However, it also ensures that where an employer chooses not to engage in collective bargaining, either with a trade union or an internal accepted body, and where the number of employees on whose behalf the matter is being pursued is significant, an effective framework exists that allows a trade union to have the union relation and terms and conditions of its members in that employment assessed against relevant comparatives and determined by the Labour Court if necessary.
Both Deputies have asked me to comment on the management. I will be clear on this. We generally ask in these cases that both sides engage as they have been doing already but to re-engage, if necessary, with the mechanisms that are in place and that have served the State well.
It is not beyond the bounds of normal industrial relations practice for a Minister or any other Member to call on a company to respect and honour an agreement. We asked the British Government this week to respect and honour an agreement they made with Ireland and the EU and I expect that this House would unite in requesting Premier Periclase to honour an agreement it made with its workers in 1998.
I am glad, in many respects, that the Minister of State mentioned the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, 2015, which I authored and which introduces some important protections and measures to promote collective bargaining in the context of what is a difficult constitutional environment. Sadly, however, the programme for Government that was authored by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party is virtually a workers' rights-free document. If employers think they can hollow out the pay and terms and conditions and bust trade union activity in factories and workplaces throughout this country, and that is a route to economic recovery, they are sadly mistaken.
Does the Minister of State feel that it is time to finally and ultimately grasp that collective bargaining mettle in this country and that, whether the initiative will come from the EU or from Ireland, we finally address this long-running sore in our economy and society to provide people with full trade union and collective bargaining rights, even if that means addressing it through a constitutional amendment?
Given what we outlined about the company's clear attempts at union busting and to erode any long-standing collective agreement, I would have thought the Minister of State's first gut instinct would be to say we must protect workers' rights in this State and that he would certainly write to the company to ask it to engage with the State apparatus that is in place to resolve these disputes, that is, the WRC. That is what I would do were I a Minister. I would initially be concerned and say that if this company can get away with it then other companies will see that and it will be a race to the bottom for workers' rights. The Minister of State did not share that concern at all. While that is not surprising, it is extremely disappointing.
Workers took a pay but of 5% in 2016 when the company said it was in trouble. The company is no longer in trouble and hence in January of this year it gave a 20% pay increase to all of its CEOs, of which there are many. The workers want to engage with the WRC and they want the management to sit down and engage with talks. They want a resolution but they cannot be expected to get back to work where the terms and conditions are undefined. This is a workers' rights issue. The Minister of State should have it within him to stand up for workers' rights.
It will take nothing out of him. Will he write to the company in the interest of workers' rights and out of respect for the WRC, the State apparatus, the long and hard-fought battle for workers rights' and the long-standing collective agreement in place? Will he write to the company and ask it to engage with the WRC around the table with the workers?
Will the Deputy please respect the Chair? I know it is difficult but we have another Topical Issue debate to get to. I ask for her co-operation.
I reiterate that Ireland's system of industrial relations is voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial relations issues lies ultimately with employers, workers and their respective representatives as appropriate. I could not be any clearer and I said twice in my opening contribution that I expect all sides to engage with the industrial relations process. That is what I have asked for.
I believe we are fortunate in Ireland in terms of the industrial relations systems we have developed and to which we are committed. In my previous address in the House a few weeks ago in this area, I acknowledged Deputy Nash and the great work he did on the 2015 Act. We have committed in the programme for Government to review changes of our collective bargaining and to strengthen that position. I recognise the Deputy was a former Minister of State who has strengthened the system in this area and I compliment him on that.
It has been the consistent policy of successive Governments to support the development of an institutional framework supportive of a voluntary system of industrial relations. There has been a consensus among the social partners that the terms and conditions of employment of workers are best determined through the process of voluntary bargaining between employers and workers and between employers' associations and trade unions or staff associations. This approach has served us well over the years and has resolved a large number of high-profile disputes.
In general, our laws do not try to impose a solution on parties to a trade dispute but rather are designed to support the parties in resolving their differences. The State has, by and large, confined its role to underpinning the voluntarism through the provision of a framework and institutions through which good industrial relations can and have prospered, on most occasions. As I said in my opening contribution, the vast majority of industrial relations recommendations are accepted voluntarily by the parties where employer and employee representatives come together and enter into voluntary agreements to resolve their differences. It is a win-win situation with buy-in from both sides. While I have no direct role in these matters, I stand by the professionalism of the industrial relations machinery of the State that are always available to facilitate solutions where both parties are prepared to work with those institutions.
There has been some engagement in this case, although I am not privy to the detail of that. I ask that this engagement should continue to try to get a resolution to this issue. I encourage all sides to make every effort to reach a resolution by agreement between companies and workers with the help of the industrial relations machinery of the State. I commend the work they do.
We have five speakers on the final Topical Issue debate to whom I will allocate one minute each and, therefore, I ask for the co-operation of all Deputies. The normal time for a debate is four minutes. Deputies will have a minute each with half a minute for a supplementary question. I call Deputy Crowe.
The aviation sector supports upwards of 140,000 jobs. Some 40,000 of these are directly employed in the sector. Shannon Airport has been disproportionately hit and staff there have been exposed to temporary lay offs and pay cuts more so than their counterparts in Dublin and Cork airports. Shannon Airport is experiencing a sharp decline in passenger numbers and desperately needs a financial adrenaline shot to ensure it survives the economic uncertainty brought on by Covid-19 and comes out the other side in a healthy state.
The aviation task force reported to the Government on 7 July and there is an urgent need to adopt its recommendations and provide a stimulus package for Shannon Airport. We need a high-profile, highly capable individual to replace Rose Hynes as chair of Shannon Group. I look forward to the Department leading a review of the management structures at the airport. The Covid crisis presents an opportunity to redesign aviation policy. I encourage the Minister of State to look at the proposals put forward by the chambers of commerce in the region.
I would like to hear the Minister of State's views on the proposed rapid testing at the point of departure and arrivals. It is the only way to scientifically guarantee that passengers coming into Ireland and departing are Covid free.
We need a two-pronged approach to address the situation facing our airports. We need to get clarity on international travel on and off the island, and we need to put a stimulus package in place to sustain the aviation industry over time. We need to recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic will be with us for the long term and we need to plan accordingly. Too many livelihoods are at stake.
A recent article in The Irish Times highlighted how the aviation sector got us out of the last recession due to its major economic contribution to society, through airports such as the one in Cork which we are here to discuss today, and the aircraft leasing business. If we do not act now, we will not survive this recession. The passenger numbers in Cork fell by over 95% during the lockdown compared with the same period in the previous year. Air traffic is not expected to recover until 2024. It is urgent for the Government to act now to ensure a proper recovery plan is put in place for the aviation sector.
Shannon Airport is a key strategic asset for the mid-west, the western region and all of Ireland. Some 40% of the FDI companies in the State are concentrated in the Shannon catchment area. These companies depend on international connectivity. Our entire tourism sector right along the western seaboard depends on inbound connectivity. Some 140,000 people in the country work in the aviation sector, many of them in Shannon which has 80 aviation-related companies.
We need to adopt an EU travel policy to bring us in line with other EU states so that we can get the aviation industry up and running again.
I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate. I want to deal with this issue by addressing the two prongs relating to the aviation sector. I understand we will see a new reopening roadmap for the aviation sector next week. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that will be the case. It is critical for us to align with the EU proposals in terms of reopening. It is about testing. It is about adding to the green list countries with lower infection rates than we have. The airlines will not survive without an expansion of this reopening of air travel.
Shannon Airport needs support through Aer Lingus restoring the Shannon to Heathrow service, along with the transatlantic services to John F. Kennedy Airport and Boston. We need State supports for companies like Aer Lingus. It is a major worry with Ryanair talking about needing the green routes to be relaxed and reopened in line with EU policy. I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment that there will be a change in the reopening in terms of the green route policy and ensuring that supports will be provided for the Aer Lingus Shannon to Heathrow service and the its transatlantic services out of Shannon.
I agree with the points the previous Deputies made. I focus my comments on two groups of workers directly affected by the failed foreign travel policy the Government is pursuing. Representatives of the travel agency industry held a protest outside Leinster House. The travel agencies remained open throughout the pandemic despite a 95% reduction in business. They have reported negative revenues in excess of 100% because they are paying out on bookings from last year. The responses from the Government have been completely unsatisfactory. We need to look after this sector.
Aer Lingus workers are being threatened with lay-offs and the Minister of State has probably received hundreds of phone calls. Is she satisfied and is the Minister satisfied that Aer Lingus operated the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, appropriately? There are severe criticisms of it.
I thank all the Deputies for raising this important issue. I am acutely aware that, as an island nation, Ireland is particularly dependent on air connectivity both socially and economically, and aviation plays a critical role in our economy. However, due to coronavirus, global civil aviation is currently experiencing its most challenging crisis, more severe than what happened after the attacks on 11 September 2001 or the global financial crash, with many analysts predicting that it will take several years for the sector to return to 2019 levels. Irish aviation stakeholders are fully exposed to the resulting dramatic downturn in activity and it is clear that should Covid-19's impact on aviation be prolonged, this will affect their long-term financial health. I have met all key aviation stakeholders and officials have ongoing engagement with airports and airlines.
I am particularly concerned by a recent announcement by Ryanair of the possible closure of its bases at Shannon and Cork, and also media reports that Aer Lingus might relocate aircraft from its base at Shannon. These are commercial decisions of the companies concerned and it should be noted that route schedules for the winter season at Shannon and Cork have not yet been finalised.
In order to assist businesses and further protect employment, the Government has put in place a comprehensive suite of generalised supports for companies of all sizes, including those in the aviation sector, which includes a wage subsidy scheme, grants, low-cost loans, a waiver of commercial rates and deferred tax liabilities. Liquidity funding is also available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund. The existing support mechanisms available for the aviation sector will be reviewed in the context of the Government's plans for international travel.
In line with priorities for regional development, the Government is also maintaining subvention for air services to the regions. Approximately €2.5 million in Exchequer funding is being provided for capital investment in the areas of safety and security for Donegal, Ireland West and Kerry airports. A new regional airports programme for 2020 to 2024 is being prepared, incorporating a number of support schemes for our regional airports.
Shannon Airport has been provided with an emergency grant of over €6 million to complete its hold baggage screening project, a safety and security requirement under EU regulations.
Legislation has been introduced to provide a State guarantee for refund credit notes issued to consumers of Irish licensed travel agents and tour operators who have had to cancel holiday bookings. This guarantee ensures that where a credit note is accepted by a consumer, its monetary value is secured until it is used in the future.
These supports notwithstanding, our airlines and other aviation stakeholders have had to make a number of difficult decisions in order to best ensure their long-term commercial viability. These decisions have focused on areas such as redundancies, laying off staff and the potential closure of operational bases, all in response to the significant reduction in their operations. Industry has also introduced shorter working schemes, which have reduced both hours worked and levels of pay received by their staff.
The aviation recovery task force set out recommendations for consideration by Ministers and the Government on what needs to be done to assist the Irish aviation sector to recover from the Covid-19 crisis. The task force report contains a number of recommendations on how to support Irish aviation, which has been badly affected by the almost complete shutdown of international air travel. The recommendations include measures to sustain the industry for as long as travel restrictions are in place and also measures to help stimulate a return to growth, when the time is right.
The Government has already implemented several recommendations, including the publication of safe air travel protocols. We have progressed a European slot rule waiver for airlines in consultation with the European Commission. The wage subsidy scheme was extended to April 2021.
The other recommendations, including further targeted financial supports to help reinstate connectivity, are being examined by Government. Work is required to develop these recommendations into effective interventions and that work is under way. This will feed into the Government's further plans to aid the broader economic recovery, including in the aviation sector. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I just wanted to get my reply in.
I know. I am very conscious of that but replies can be read into the record. We have to apportion time.
I thank the Minister of State for the positive elements of her reply. In my follow-up statement I will address the issue of Aer Lingus and Ryanair. Their commitments to Shannon are quite questionable. I ask that the Government intervene and address some of the things these airlines have sought through the aviation task force in its recommendations. Aer Lingus is operating pseudoflights out of Shannon. One can book three flights a day but they will be cancelled and one might have to wait four or five months to get a refund. There is something immoral about that. Aer Lingus is either committed to flying out of Shannon and to having its aircraft there or it is not. I want the Government to intervene so that this will be solidly nailed down for the months ahead. I thank the Minister of State for her support and positive indications.
The final point I want to make relates to the task force report provided to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. This report stated very clearly that the State is required to intervene with our airports if we are to ensure they will be able to survive this pandemic. People are extremely worried about their livelihoods. They were perfectly fine until this pandemic came upon us. The Government must step in and provide a comprehensive plan as to how it is going to rescue this sector. It would be unacceptable for connectivity on this island, for our economy and for our society if a major failure in this sector were to be allowed. I strongly encourage the Minister of State to do something about this urgently.
We need to restart aviation. What is the Minister of State's view on pretesting people for Covid before they enter the State? Has consideration been given to introducing such a policy? Other European states are doing just that. We should also introduce a system of rapid testing at our airports. Has the Minister of State given consideration to that? We need a roadmap to get aviation started again. I look forward to its publication next week.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister of State. When will the roadmap for the reopening of the air travel sector be published? Does she expect it to align with the European Commission model? This is something for which the airline industry and those of us in the Shannon-Limerick region have been calling. As has been mentioned previously, pilots, cabin crew, the staff at Shannon Airport and travel agents have been greatly impacted by this particular decision. Does the Minister of State believe the Government will provide State supports for airlines such as Aer Lingus and Ryanair?
Those workers will be very disappointed with the Minister of State's response. There is no clarity as to their future prospects. I will repeat my question; is the Minister of State satisfied that Aer Lingus operated the temporary wage subsidy scheme appropriately? What supports will be provided for travel agents? Of the €335 million the State made from the sale of its stake in Aer Lingus, €245 million is still available. Will the Government use that money to take a stake in Aer Lingus? Has that been considered? Will it be used to support the sector?
I will be brief and try to keep to the time allotted. I have engaged with travel agents and have written to the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding supports for them. With regard to Aer Lingus workers, the Deputies can be assured that protecting jobs and employment is a key priority for the Government.
To answer some of the Deputies' other queries, the Government is acting on public health advice and has adopted a very cautious approach to international travel. It is currently finalising a new medium-term roadmap for living with Covid which will include its approach to international travel. The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid is meeting tomorrow. It is envisaged that plans for international air travel will be considered. We need to explore whether the introduction of Covid testing in the context of international travel can provide an alternative to the restrictions and allow for the reopening of international travel. The Government will discuss that medium-term plan at the Cabinet meeting next Tuesday and it will be published shortly thereafter.
The Deputies can be assured that a great amount of work is happening across Government, led by the Taoiseach's office. Different Government Departments are feeding into this work. My own Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is feeding in with regard to international travel. I have already highlighted the importance of connectivity, including regional connectivity, for our island and the importance of protecting jobs while, at the same time, ensuring that public health is safeguarded.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I know it is a real concern for all of them and for the workers in their constituencies. We are here to try to protect jobs and to ensure connectivity, while remaining highly aware of the need to protect our citizens and public health.